"Mountains are not cones, clouds are not spheres, and rivers are not straight lines" -- Benoit Mandelbrot.
"Organic forms have a general character which distinguishes them from artificial ones.... We come then to conceive of organic form as something which is produced by the interaction of numerous forces which are balanced against one another in a near-equilibrium that has the character not of a precisely definable pattern but rather of a slightly fluid one, a rhythm...There is, in a human work of sculpture, no actual multitude of internal growth-forces which are balanced so as to issue in a near-equilibrium of a rhythmic character. We should therefore not expect that works of art will often arrive at the same type of form as we commonly find in the structures of living matter. Much more can we anticipate an influence of man's intellectualizing, pattern-making habit of simplification, diluted perhaps by an intrusion of unresolved detail." (Waddington (1951) in L.L. Whyte, ed. Aspects of Form)
Can architecture take on the characteristics of natural form?
There are several possible dimensions to this exploration. First of all, Is the distinction between natural and "conventional" form a question of geometry? Or of geometry versus topology? Traditionally, architecture has been described as based on the geometry of "Platonic" forms. This tradition continues through Le Corbusier right up to the construction of CAD programs like Autocad based on geometric primitives. At the beginning of Le Hazard et la Nécessité, Jacques Monod tests the criteria of simple geometry and repetition as means of distinguishing between natural and artificial and finds that they do not work. Bee hives and crystals, for example, are simple geometrical forms found in nature. For Benoit Mandelbrot, fractals are the "geometry of nature." He suggests that architecture needs fractal scaling qualities in order to ressemble the forms of nature.
Although the quotes at the beginning of this section suggest that there are some formal distinctions between the patterns of nature and the forms of geometry, another path of inquiry is the question of design. The "question of design" has always been an issue for natural form. It has often been adduced as a an argument for God, the "watchmaker." For natural forms can seem better than those of human design, more complex, more adapted, etc. While the "question of design" was originally an argument against Darwinian evolution, the evolutionary process of random mutation and natural selection has gradually come to be recognized as an extraordinarily effective way of exploring the relations between organisms and environments.
According to Schopenhauer, Kant's Critique of Judgement wants to say only this: "although organized bodies necessarily seem to us as if they were constructed according to an antecedent concept of purpose, yet this does not justify us in assuming that they are objectively so." Kant held that if natural form exhibits beauty it is because of its harmony with the patterning faculties of human consciousness. "We...ascribe to nature, as it were, a regard to our cognitive faculty according to the analogy of purpose. We can thus regard natural beauty as the presentation (Darstellung) of the concept of the formal (merely subjective) purposiveness, and natural purposes as the presentation of the concept of real (objective) purposiveness. The former of these we judge by taste (aesthetical, by the medium of the feeling of pleasure), the latter by understanding and reason (logical, according to concepts). (Critique of Judgement, p. 30) Kant's aesthetics remains primarily concerned with nature over art. For Kant, "a natural beauty is a beautiful thing, artificial beauty is a beautiful representation of a thing." (p.154)
While Kant stresses the disinterested nature of aesthetic judgement, in order to consider it in a transcendental and a priori framework, he gives a particular importance to an interest in natural beauty. When we perceive beauty in natural forms, we see them as signs of nature's accessibility to reason. At this point, nature is thought to be technical -- producing its forms with rules that indicate an agreement between nature and our cognition.
For Kant, the concept of objective purposiveness is only brought into play when an natural product seems quite accidental. If natural forms appear to us as if they were designed, for human designs to appear natural might mean that they appeared as if they were not designed (by an outside agency), but were the results of some internal, or evolutionary process, manifested through the "growth forces" referred to by Lancelot Whyte. (see above.)
Ever since the formulation of the concept of inertia by Galileo and Descartes, science has rejected any sense of purpose or intent to nature. (rejecting any Aristotelian telos or final cause) Yet the structures and functions of living entities are all purposive in assuring the "project" of their continued existence. Monod describes this feature of living things as "teleonomy." (This term can be used to denote any system, living or mechanical, that is so constructed that, when activated in its envronment of adaptedness, achieves a predictable outcome. (Bowlby, Attachment, p. 140)) Monod characterizes life by teleonomy, autonomous morphogenesis, and invariance. (through reproduction) According to Monod, invariance is the primary characteristic. The refinement of biological structures occurs through the selective preservation of perturbations, "the conservation of chance," in structures that already have the property of invariance. (see evolution )For Monod a distinguishing feature of living things is that they are a direct result of " morphogenetic" forces internal to themselves that unfold as spontaneous and independent processes. Could man-made, artifical objects take on such qualities?
D'Arcy Thompson identified his work on the inter-relations of growth and form with "Goethe's name of Morphology," (p.1026) explaining that this is only a part of "that wider Science of Form which deals with the forms assumed by matter under all aspects and conditions, and, in a still wider sense, with forms that are theoretically imaginable." Thompson sought to explain organic forms in terms of physical forces -- fluid motion for sea dwellers, static forces of gravity. (rel to structural rationalism in architecture) For Thompson, organic form is, mathematically speaking, a function of time. It is a vector phenomenon, as opposed to a scalar one. He describes his dealings with form as a "quasi-mechanical effect on Matter of the operation of chemico-physical forces," as opposed to Aristotle's metaphysical concept. (Growth and Form, complete and revised ed. p. 81) For D'Arcy Thompson, mathematics enables the passage from description to analysis, and allows for new freedoms in finding homologies. Just as the definition of the "conic section" enlarges our concepts of curves and allows us to learn that however we hold our chain, or however we fire our bullet, the contours are always mathematically homologous. Contemporary developments of Thompson's approach eg. Kauffman, Goodwin analyse structures of dynamic processes such as morphogenesis. They concentrate on the capacity of feedback loops to acheive stability or self-regulation.
The form of most organisms -- aside from the most minute, who are most directly influenced by external physical forces -- can be described in terms of ratios of growth in different directions. "The form of an object is a 'diagram of forces' "(p.11) Christopher Alexander interprets Thompson's "diagram of forces" as an expression of the fact that a form and its context are complementary. For him, design problems are problems because "we are trying to make a diagram for forces whose field we do not understand." (p.21)
Is the natural world characterized by diversity ( multiplicity) or by infinite gradations of a few themes? The latter idea is espoused by Buffon and Diderot and finds its classical formutation in Goethe and Saint-Hilaire. For Goethe, "nature has formed all living beings according to a single plan, essentially the same in its principle, but which it has varied in a thousand ways in each accessory part." (Deleuze and Guattari call this the plane of consistency (or immanence) of nature. (see also population / typological)
Are D'Arcy Thompson's "cartesian transformations" of animal forms an illustration of the "same" form mapped into different spaces? According to Gerry Webster, D'Arcy Thompson's method can only deal with variations in the shape (a nonrelational property) of parts which are in morphological correspondence, that is, parts that are homologous. What is the relation between this question and the idea of type?
It is the type, or more specifically, the archetype, that enables both variation and identity in both architecture and morphology.
Critics of the "Neo-Darwinian Sythesis" are not satisfied with a description of biological form as a a mere "collocation of accidents" without some organizing principles. They call for some kind of "rational morphology," based on "generic form" that distinguishes between the rational and the empirical. The project of a "logic of morphology" would be the systematic unification of diversity. (see Gerry Webster and Brian Goodwin, Form and Transformation. )
Hans Driesch attributed the concept of type to Cuvier and Goethe, and defined it as "a sort of irreducible arrangement of different parts." However, for Driesch the term "typical" seems to have been used to denote any forms, normal or abnormal, at any stage of the "life cycle" which might be regarded as characteristic variants...insofar as they are forms which arise from intrinsic nature as opposed to those which are externally induced. This notion of the typical does not ignore variation but rather involves the the assumption that normal, variant, and "monstrous" forms are all law governed. (see Gerry Webster and Brian Goodwin, Form and Transformation, p.9)
Goethe's phenomenology of form consists, at least initially, of a perceptual-aesthetic synthesis in which a set of forms, for example, the sequence of leaves along the axis of a plant, is grasped intuitively as an "animated totality." In phenomenological terms, unification is acheieved at the level of perception by "intending" the set as a transformation series; that is, a set within which we experience a "movement" or transition from one member to the next. The plant "lives" in in this intuition, and the subsequent task of the morphologist is to grasp the "unchanging spirit" or " immanent law" which reveals itself in change -- in contemporary terms the "form of the series." For Cassirer, the distinctive feature of Goethe's Concept of Form is the relation it posits between the "particular" and the "universal" -- that "they interpenetrate one another... The 'factual' and the 'theoretical' are not opposite poles...but only two expressions and factors of a unified and irreducible relation." (The Problem of Knowledge, cited in Webster, Form and Transformation, p. 111) Goethe's theory of Metamorphosis is not about a real and historical genesis, but about an ideal, a "law" which appears to define a kind. The concept of "type" or kind, is therefore, the concept of a "law" in terms of which all the variants of that kind can be intelligibly connected. They are all "typical forms." (see also gestalt)
However, Goethe's phenomenology seems applicable only to continuously varying forms and, as such only to what Bateson calls "substantive variation," that is, variation in morphological elements such as shape, size, color, and so forth. Yet such variation, what Bateson calls "meristic variation," is discontinuous. Goethe's approach restricts itself to the level of experience, without providing theories of intelligibility such as Bateson's "Positions of Organic Stability." These latter theories describe discontinuous and unintelligible empirical change as the "expression" of an intelligible change in a "hidden" thing, that is, a change in which some element of continuity is preserved such that the thing can be conceived as remaining the same kind of thing. (Webser, 116.) For Gerry Webster, morphogenetic fields are the kinds of generative structures which explain these emprical discontinuities.
For Richard Owen, organic forms result from the antagonistic working of two principles, one of which brings about a vegetative repetition of structure, while the other, a teleological principle, shapes the living thing to its functions. The "general polarizing force" of the former produces repetition of parts, the similarity of forms, and the signs of unity of organization. (Russell. p.111) The adaptive or "special organizing force" or idea, on the other hand, produces the diversity of organic beings.
Recently, scientific attention has shifted from equilibrium (and reversibility) to systems far from equilibrium, chaotic systems, or systems at the edge of chaos. In addition, computer programs that manage complex information allow for the kind of fluidity that Whyte saw in nature. Computers seem to offer a bridge between the natural and the cultural, or between the natural and the artificial. (it might be worth exploring Heidegger's distinction between the bridge and the electric dam here) The use of new technologies is described through the surfing metaphor of riding the wave.
The idea of nature has been subject to intense critiques which emphasize its cultural or social construction. In a cultural context, the concept of order has been increasingly identified with repression if not terror (eg. Foucault, Serres etc.) That critique itself can be seen as the extension of the domain of culture over the domain of nature, of the denial of anything outside of culture. While ideas of nature have specific cultural constructions and functions, I think we should be wary of giving ourselves too much credit, of falling into human species-centrism by believing that our interpretations construct the world rather than the other way around. (Especially at a moment when we sense the limitations and devaluation of our own symbol systems.)
Yet for natural scientists the living world is characterized by overwhelming and beautiful order. To appeal to natural form is to change the valence of order, whether this is the emergent order of complex systems or the " phase beauty" of the lily-of-the-valley.
If nature has no intention to express, is natural form a symbolic form? (need to look at Focillon) what is "organic expression?" see organicism.
"Mountains are not cones, clouds are not spheres, and rivers are not straight lines" -- Benoit Mandelbrot.